The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution

By Henry Friedlander | Go to book overview
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Chapter 1 The Setting

Nazi genocide did not take place in a vacuum. Genocide was only the most radical method of excluding groups of human beings from the German national community. The policy of exclusion followed and drew upon more than fifty years of scientific opposition to the equality of man. Since the turn of the century, the German elite--that is, the members of the educated professional classes--had increasingly accepted an ideology of human inequality. Geneticists, anthropologists, and psychiatrists advanced a theory of human heredity that merged with the racist doctrine of ultranationalists to form a political ideology based on race.1 The Nazi movement both absorbed and advanced this ideology. After their assumption of power in 1933, the Nazis created the political framework that made it possible to translate this ideology of inequality into a policy of exclusion. At the same time, the German bureaucratic, professional, and scientific elite provided the legitimacy the regime needed for the smooth implementation of this policy.2

The growing importance of the biological sciences in the nineteenth century, following the discoveries of Charles Darwin, led most scientists to advance theories of human inequality as matters of scientific fact.3 In the middle of the century, a widely accepted theory maintained that there was a causal relationship between the size of the human brain and human intelligence.4 In 1861 the anthropologist Paul Broca thus asserted that "there is a remarkable relationship between the development of intelligence and the volume of the brain," and he argued that studies based on this premise showed that "in general, the brain is larger in mature adults than in the elderly, in men than in women, in eminent men than in men of mediocre talent, in superior races than in inferior races."5

Belief in inequality coexisted with the principles of equality proclaimed by American and French revolutionaries. Scientists, themselves products of their times, constructed "rank-order or value-judgment hierarchies" that placed human beings on a single scale of intelligence, thus incorporating popular prejudices into their theories. As proof they offered meaningless, but carefully compiled, correlations between the size of the brain and presumed intelligence. But such scientific data, "no matter how numerically sophisticated, have recorded little more than social prejudice."6 Popular prejudice accepted that males were more intelligent than females, and in 1879 Gustave Le Bon, the founder of social psychology, concurred: "In the most intelligent races, as among the Parisians, there are a large number of women whose brains are

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